The new pariah state

Hamas showed its strength in forcing Fatah from Gaza. But will it turn the desperate strip into a ne

Naser, a Palestinian cameraman, paid a visit to a family friend in Gaza last Sunday and found an eerily changed place. It was the first time he had set foot in the strip since Hamas declared its victory over Fatah in what was a humiliating military defeat for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. More than a hundred of his forces were slain, or cold-bloodedly thrown from rooftops by Hamas fighters.

But that Sunday, Naser and his friends were overcome by a silence that had fallen on the battleground. No shots were heard that evening nor the evenings that followed. In previous months, the night air would have been pungent with gunfire as armed factions challenged one another, or family disputes erupted into violence. Monder, a lawyer from Al-Shati camp, also noted the altered mood. He observed how Gazans uncharacteristically respected traffic lights that were being manned by Hamas supporters rather than the little-respected traffic police of old. While Naser and Monder expressed relief at this new law-abiding behaviour by fellow citizens, they voiced concerns that Gaza was showing signs of a Taliban-style of government. This might have brought law and order to Afghanistan. It also plunged that country into the dark ages.

In an attempt to mollify the Egyptian government and lure it way from its historic alliance with Fatah, the Hamas leader, Khalid Mishal, told Egyptian authorities that his movement's tough stand against Fatah in Gaza had been necessary to prevent the strip from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda splinter groups. He was referring in part to the powerful clan of Dagmoush, which is responsible for holding captive the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston for the past three months. Mishal said Gaza's lawlessness had provided a fertile environment in which extreme groups could flourish. This message was important for Egyptian officials, who have had difficulty controlling their border with Gaza and preventing gangs from infiltrating on both sides via a network of underground tunnels. Over the past few years, Egyptian resorts along the Sinai coast have been targeted by suicide bombers, claiming hundreds of lives and seriously affecting the tourism industry on which Egypt depends. Security forces believe a number of Egyptian nationals from the desert border region were affiliated to al-Qaeda and had been hiding in the Gaza town of Rafah. Some reports have suggested they may also have received training and financial support from members of Hamas without the approval of its leadership.

Hamas's strongman in Gaza, Mahmoud al- Zahhar, the movement's former foreign minister, said the group was keen to co-operate with the Egyptian government, despite the strong links between Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Islamic Brotherhood and its Egyptian mother branch - Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's main opponent. This position was seen by some in the region as a PR campaign to improve Hamas's tarnished image following the brutal killings of its opponents and an attempt to woo western governments to talk to its deposed prime minister, Ismail Haniya. Still, by issuing threats against Johnston's captors, Hamas appears to be taking practical steps to distance itself from Islamic organisations and clans allied to al-Qaeda. It has not gone unnoticed that the kidnappers have said they would exchange Johnston for Abu Qutada, an al-Qaeda leader held in a British jail.

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The Hamas decision to seize control of Gaza was born out of the realisation that this was the only available way of gaining the recognition, or at least attention, of the international community. Since its election victory in January 2006, it had been cold shouldered. The west's strategy did not change even after Hamas joined a unity government with Fatah three months ago.

Just as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was recognised only by Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the Talibanisation of Gaza would leave it a pariah state with only Iran and Syria for friends. The consequences for Gaza's one million starving Palestinian population are alarming. At the moment nobody knows who will pay the salaries of more than 120,000 public-sector employees. Will Israel allow food and aid to get across checkpoints? What will happen to Palestinians crossing the border from Gaza to Egypt?

While Hamas's leaders do not appear to have answers to any of the questions, it seems that some of them, at least, are aware of the responsibilities they face. Al-Zahhar sent a message to the Israelis that said: "Hamas will not attack Israel before Israel attacks us." This raises another question: What will be Hamas's attitude towards other Palestinian factions such as Islamic Jihad or even Fatah's military wing, known as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, should they continue launching rocket attacks against neighbouring Israeli settlements? The only certainty would be the strength of Israel's response.

The timing of Hamas's military victory over Fatah suggests it must have co-ordinated with, or consulted, Tehran and Damascus. It is now clear that the sophistication of Hamas's arsenal easily dwarfed Fatah's resistance. However, that weaponry will count for little, surrounded as Gaza is by a hostile world.

Zaki Chehab is the author of "Inside Hamas", published by I B Tauris in the UK (£16.99) and by Nation Books in the US ($25.95)

Voices from Gaza

Atef Safi, 29: "Gaza's population has paid the price for the power struggle. Both factions are big-headed. We have ended up with a mini- Palestinian state for Hamas in Gaza without sovereignty and a large luxury state for Fatah without sovereignty in the West Bank. I hold the international community responsible for not dealing with the unity government that included ministers of both sides and for not lifting the embargo. Hamas was forced to take over the Gaza Strip as the world, including Fatah, did not give Hamas a chance."

Nasser Hammad, 40: "I'm so happy that Hamas has put an end to the security chaos. I now feel safe and I'm not worried any more about my children going alone to school. I drove my car today. I was excited to see policemen at every crossroad directing traffic. Police have also started to storm drug dealers' strongholds, which is good. Shame on Abbas's security forces. Even though he had 40,000 security men in Gaza, he was unable to end the lawlessness. Hamas had only 17,000."

Roa'a Salem, 22: "What is happening is the implementation of an Israeli-US conspiracy to make Palestinians forget about their real goal: to end 40 years of Israeli occupation and to establish a Palestinian state. Israel will support Abbas in the West Bank, easing life by removing some checkpoints and helping the economy improve there. At the same time, they will keep severe sanctions on Gaza, so that Gazans will rebel against Hamas. I think this won't happen. I predict that Israel will wage a full-scale invasion and shell the security compounds seized by Hamas."

Mahmoud, 30: "If you ask people here about their priorities, they will tell you, 'We want to feel safe and we want an end to anarchy.' We must get rid of the collaborators and mercenaries in the security forces led by Fatah, who participated in the siege imposed by the quartet to bring down the Palestinian government led by Hamas."

Compiled by Yousef Alhelou, Gaza City

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

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After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

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The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater